Are Netflix Movies Really Only “TV Movies”? The New “Straight to VHS”?

The phrase “straight to VHS” (later replaced with “straight to DVD”) is synonymous with low-budget movies or fairly poor Disney sequels that didn’t deserve a cinematic release… So when movies are frequently going “straight to Netflix” you’d be forgiven for assuming it’s just another natural progression of “straight current-media” – but is it?

While it’s true that there are many Netflix Originals that are bypassing the cinema and coming straight to Netflix it doesn’t mean they are poor quality or budget titles. While it’s true that some get slated by critics it doesn’t mean they’re not good films – Will Smith’s “Bright” was panned by critics yet still scores highly with audiences. However, films like “Mudbound” and “Okja”, while gaining massive amounts of praise, still seem to cause controversy with the movie industry simply because they are daring to be different.

Traditionally a movie would be released in cinemas and then after some time it would get a home release followed by paid-TV release (Sky Movies etc) and then eventually, often years later, aired on terrestrial TV for all. Low-budget movies would sometimes skip the cinematic release and go straight to DVD. Whereas Netflix wanted simultaneous cinematic and Netflix releases but cinemas we reluctant to do this – why should they pay to have a film showing that people can watch at home ‘for free’ anyway? So instead they now come straight to Netflix and skip the traditional process altogether – simply because the traditional parties (cinemas) didn’t want to change.

Occasionally a Netflix Original will get a limited theatrical release such as “Mudbound” and “Okja”, which were mentioned earlier. The reason they were released in cinemas was so they can be considered for Academy Awards, i.e. The Oscars. The traditional way the awards are run requires a cinematic release so as to remove any “TV Movies” from the awards. Many traditional movie buffs aren’t happy with this though – it’s a workaround in order to qualify for an award. If you ask me, it just sounds like they’re having a strop because someone new is trying to join their exclusive little club…

The latest big name to voice his opinion against Netflix is none other than Steven Spielberg. In a recent interview with UK TV channel ITV, while promoting his upcoming “Ready Player One”, he had a bit of a pop at Netflix. You can see the clip below but in a nutshell he says that any film maker that commits to the small screen (i.e. Netflix, Amazon etc) is just “a TV movie” and that Netflix is “a clear and present danger to film-goers”. I’d like to ask why? Just because a film is watched on a small screen does not mean it can’t still be a good film. In fact, if a film requires a large screen to be good then I’d have to ask whether it is simply the visual effects that make it good rather than the story itself? To me, story and acting ability is much more important than visual effects. Good story and good acting is obvious whatever size screen you watch it on. Why should a film’s merits be based on whether or not it’s shown on a large screen?

Cinemas and Hollywood didn’t want to change their traditions and simultaneously release movies theatrically and on streaming media. They were given that option by the likes of Netflix and now Netflix are doing it their own way. Admittedly, they may not always get it right (“The Cloverfield Paradox”) but at least they’re trying and giving film-makers a chance where bigger studios/names wouldn’t release the films. To paraphrase the comedian Brendon Burns: “Afterall, what are traditions? They’re just things your grandparents did that everyone else copies.” There’s no real, actual reason why movies should have to be shown in cinemas…

What do you think? Do you agree with Spielberg that Netflix Originals are “just TV movies” or are they much more than that? And do you really need a big screen to watch a good movie?


About MaFt

Film and TV fan, creator of New On Netflix (UK, USA, Australia and Canada), dad of two amazing children, code geek and passionate about autism.

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19 thoughts on “Are Netflix Movies Really Only “TV Movies”? The New “Straight to VHS”?

  1. What you have here is a conflation of different arguments.

    “Threat to film-goers” isn’t an issue of whether films are good or bad. It’s an issue of the cinematic experience (and what that means for vision and cinematography – but I’ll come back to that), and yes, films bypassing the cinema is a clear threat to the continued existence of people being able to partake in that experience.

    (Frankly, audiences at cinemas are too often full of annoying gits, and too often there are technical issues with a screening, so I’m not enamoured with going to the cinema).

    Netflix is definitely closer to “TV movie” than “Straight to DVD”. The latter is more that an issue of low quality (which it often is), or low budget (yep) – straight to dvd is a mixture of films with better intentions that couldn’t get a distribution deal, and films that cash in on a known premise / character / franchise. In other words, if you are setting out to go to dvd, you need to have built a potential audience who will then buy it when they see it.

    The dynamics of putting films on Netflix are very different. You’re not looking for a single title to sell, but a broad catalogue that will keep people signed up to. It doesn’t matter if the film is only watched by 5% of subscribers, it’s more important that it’s the tipping point that keeps that 5% signed up to the service.

    And, as I touched on before, there is an issue of scale and vision. If you are making a film straight to Netflix, you are making it to be seen on a smaller screen, a less powerful and possibly only stereo sound system. Yes, home cinemas have improved a lot from the early days of straight to VHS. It changes the priority of where you spend the money, putting detail where it will be appreciated.

    You only have to look at the complaints of inaudible dialogue in dramas recently. Being large or small, loud or quiet doesn’t make it good or bad. But it needs to fit the medium.

  2. I haven’t been to the cinema since Kingdom of Heaven in 2005, and am unlikely to ever go again. If there’s a movie I’m interested in, I’m quite happy to wait for it to hit Blu-ray or Netflix/Amazon. Screen size makes no difference at all to my personal enjoyment of a film, and in the comfort of my own home I can control the volume, pause when I like, and not have countless irritating strangers around me, rustling sweet packets, slurping drinks, and waving their phones around as they text.

    Anyway… some of Netflix output has been fantastic, some of it has been utter tripe. So basically, it’s no different to Hollywood.

    That being said, I’ve never been much of a Spielberg fan anyway; I’ve found more of his films (that I’ve watched, and that’s by no means all of them) to be garbage than not, and have to say – as an older gamer – what I’ve seen of RPO so far makes it seem like the same old cheesy Hollywood crud, created by people who *think* they know what gamers want. I’ll give it a go when it eventually hits Netflix, but it’s definitely something I can wait on.

  3. The effects in some of them have been very movie like, even their tv content has had a bigger budget, that upcoming lost in space looks visually impressive for a tv series

  4. Being a comedy movie fan to me it seems to translate as, “it’s got Adam Sandler in it”. And he just happens to not be a fave of mine. Though I realise there’s many who like him.

    One of my favourite comedy movies ever got the straight to video (UK) treatment. The Man with Two Brains, Steve Martin dir Carl Reiner.

  5. The Spielberg interview has really been taken out of context. He wasn’t saying they are poor quality, every one wrongly assumes the definition of ‘tv movie’ is ‘poor quality movie’. Netflix distribute movies into the home. By definition they are home movies and thus qualify for Emmy’s, not Oscars. He’s actually quite correct.

    Filmmakers like Spielberg, Nolan and Tarantino see the movie going experience in a theatre as a precious and important one and they’d like to preserve that. Netflix could opt for theatrical release like 6 months before they stream it but they don’t want to, that’s their choice. They are choosing to not go down the theatrical avenue. Why should the Oscars bend to will because Netflix won’t?

    CD didn’t kill Vinyl, but it did affect it. MP3 downloads haven’t killed CD but it did affect it. Streaming hasn’t killed record sales but it has affected it. TV- Radio, Cinema- Stageplay, Photography-Paintings… History shows that progress has a negative impact on what came before but also shows there is space for everything though more limited than before.

    This discussion is guided by emotions and not facts. People see the Oscars as more prestigious as the Emmys. They want a film they really liked to be nominated for the best award they can think of. That’s emotions.

    Should breaking bad of gotten an Oscar? Should Moonlight of won a Tony? No, of course not so why should this be any different?

    Amazon put Manchester by the Sea into theatres before I could watch it online. As a customer, I found that annoying but it’s good advertising for Amazon to create Oscar winning movies, and Netflix seem to want that too, but something has to give.

    If I made a product, and took it to a shop and asked them to stock it, they’d be apprehensive. It’s a risk, they don’t know how well it will do. They maybe can’t afford the shelf or stock space, they’re worried they won’t sell and make a return. Now, do you think I’d convince them to take my product if I told them that I’d also let people get them for free online and they wouldn’t even have to leave their homes? No of course not, no shop would go for that and neither would any theatre go for showing a movie that their customers can just watch at home for free. It’s madness to blame that on the Theatres for not moving with the times.

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